The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Draft Ben Carson super PAC raised a massive amount of money over the last three months. How?

Placeholder while article actions load

This article has been updated.

Glance at the ten super PACs that raised the most money in the first three months of 2014 and one stands out: the National Draft Ben Carson Committee raised nearly $2.4 million -- more than a half million dollars more than Ready for Hillary, a far higher profile group, collected over the same time period.

So, what gives?

Let's start with who Ben Carson is. He's an African American former neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins who has been a controversial presence on the far right for his views on the LGBT community and other social issues. At the Values Voters Summit last fall, Carson told the crowd: “You know, Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." He has become something of a cause celebre among conservatives.

The National Draft Ben Carson Committee is trying to show there is support for a Carson candidacy. The group has run electronic billboard advertisements in Des Moines, Iowa and around Baltimore in the past few months. It is also running radio ads during Sean Hannity's show, and is in the process of hiring three regional directors. Carson told Hannity in December, “If the circumstances were to evolve in such a way that [running for president] seemed to be what God was calling me to do, I would certainly do it. And I would never turn my back on my fellow citizens, if there was a hue and cry for such.”

The group is sure to point to the 983 donations they received from January 1 to the end of March as proof of the groundswell of interest in Carson as a national candidate. However, looking at the super PAC's FEC filing shows that it shares many attributes with previous organizations that were far better at fundraising than helping longshot candidates.

In this quarter the National Draft Ben Carson Committee raised, as noted above, nearly $2.4 million. However, the group spent about $2.44 million. The invisible presidential primary hasn't even begun in earnest – so where were they spending all that money?

The simplest answer is that they spent the money raising the money.  Half of the total expenditures by the committee over the first three months of the year went to two companies: Omega List and Campaign Funding Direct. 

Omega List, which received $393,000 from the National Draft Ben Carson Committee last quarter, rents out direct mail lists to political organizations and candidates. The other organizations Omega List has worked with include the Cain Connections PAC, Herman Cain for President 2012, Americans for Sheriff Joe, American Border Control, ProEnglish and Vernon Robinson for Congress 2012. (Robinson -- who has unsuccessfully run for federal office several times, most recently in the North Carolina District 8th district race in 2012 -- is the campaign director of the National Draft Ben Carson Committee.)

Campaign Funding Direct, which received $778,000 from the National Draft Ben Carson Committee, says on its website that it is "the industry leader for PACs and candidates." Both companies, which received $1.2 million total from the National Draft Ben Carson Committee, are located at 1420 Spring Hill Rd in McLean, Va. and were started by Bruce W. Eberle. Another person who works with Eberle Associates, which calls itself "America's Trusted Conservative Fund Raiser" on its website, Ron Robinson received $6,000 from the super PAC for website management.

The Washington Post wrote about this trend of spending money to raise money as early as 1978.

Bruce Eberle, who raises money for the Fund for a Conservative Majority, which collected $317,408 last year and gave $22,400 to candidates, according to its report, attributed much of the difference to the old axiom that it costs money to raise money.
"Fundraising was very expensive in 1977, because it was not a good year for giving, being a nonelection year, "Eberle said. He said his fundraising firm, Bruce Eberle Associates, has 18 other clients, and that they are all engaged in activities other than funneling contributions to candidates, such as student scholarships, speaking tours and issue-oriented campaigns.
"How can these groups raise all this money, and distribute only such a small amount to candidates - and still have debts at the end of the year?" asked Wyatt Stewart Ill, director of finance and administration of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

An article was published two years later about another group on the right raising lots, and giving it away to direct mailing companies.

The national Taxpayers Investigative Fund was created a year ago for the purpose of ferreting out waste and fraud in government. Since then, the organization has been so busy raising money from contributors around the country that it hasn't had any time to look for waste and fraud. ...
So far the fund has received about $175,000 in contributions for its crusade against waste and fraud from 15,000 people around the country.
That response has been so encouraging that they hope soon to get on with the actual business of fighting waste and fraud. So far, though, all they have been able to do is raise the $175,000 and apparently spend most of it on the cost of raising it in the first place.
... Tapscott said he has received about $600 in "directors' fees" from NTIF to cover his expenses, and the others said they received no compensation or reimbursements. Apparently the only people who have profited so far from the existence of NTIF are printers and others involved in preparing the direct-mail fund-raising material, and Bruce Eberle and Associates, a Vienna, Va., direct-mail firm that specializes in conservative causes.

The Draft Carson super PAC also spent about $47,000 on books from Harper Collins, presumably copies of Carson's book, "Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk" to give to donors. It needed to pay $26,000 to a bank just to deal with processing online donations. Printing alone cost nearly $318,000.

Another company that works in political direct mailing campaigns has received much attention in recent election cycles for raising money for less-than-competitive Republican candidates who spend most of their donations raising money. Base Connect, formerly known as BMW Direct, is run by Kimberly Bellissimo, who worked for 13 years with Eberle Direct Marketing Group.

Across the board, hiring direct mailing firms is a risky proposition for longshot or down-and-out candidates -- especially at a time when donations can be harvested far more cheaply online, which doesn't require paying big for postage stamps, envelopes and the like. On the other hand, the old, retired voters who remain conservative hopefuls' best bet for campaign dollars are often found through the mailbox rather than on the Internet. And if your candidacy's only chance was as a sleeper hit in the first place, why not take a big risk?

Direct mail remains a powerful asset for more robust campaigns -- ones that know they'll be able to leverage the high-risk initial investment in building donors lists to use closer to Election Day to both raise money and persuade voters. Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee spent more than $100 million on direct mail to target older donors during the 2012 election. Obama and the Democratic National Committee also spent tens of millions on direct mail. However, many long-shot candidates who rely on direct mail don't have the luxury of offsetting those high costs with other fundraising.

Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, says he and his colleagues were surprised at how much direct mail fundraising still happens today. “They’re kind of like television ads,” he says. “It looks like they have a short shelf life, with all the online activity, and yet they continue to play a dominant role in campaigns.”

Dr. Ada Fisher ran against incumbent Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) in 2004 and 2006. After her second loss, she complained about how much money BMW Direct took in fees. Her campaign raised almost $400,000, yet less than $30,000 went to the campaign. She told the Salisbury Post in 2009, "I was furious. I'm still furious."

Deborah Honeycutt, who spent 78 percent of the $5.3 million she raised through direct mail on the actual mailings, lost her Georgia congressional race 69 percent to 31 percent. BMW was the direct mailing firm she worked with. When Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (La.) was running for re-election in 2010, he spent nearly $9 out of every $10 he raised on fundraising expenses. He told the Associated Press, "The cost is high in the beginning, but as you go through the campaign the returns will be a lot better."He ended up cutting ties with Base Connect and lost his re-election fight 65 percent to 35 percent -- although his odds were never good in the first place in a heavily Democratic New Orleans district.

After Sharon Angle lost her bid for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) seat, she still owed Base Connect $225,000. In 2010, former Florida Rep. Allen West raised $2.3 million through direct mail. He spent $1.8 million on printing costs. Other candidates who spent most of their haul fundraising with Base Connect include William Russell, a longshot candidate who tried to unseat the late Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, and Charles Morse, a longshot challenger to Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. After Morse ended his bid, Base Connect continued fundraising, netting $200,000 that mostly went toward paying for the direct mail program. The Boston Globe contacted people who donated to Morse after he ended his campaign. Many lived out-of-state, many were retired  and all had no idea their money was headed toward a nonexistent campaign.

On its website, Base Connect explains that it no longer provides a list of their clients because “predictably, the media and the Left used that list for purposes of harassment and distortion.”

Using direct mailing campaigns for super PACs -- which is happening more frequently since the Citizens United decision -- tends to side-step much of the backlash that these companies have received in recent years. The fundraising occurs one step removed from the candidates, who can't complain when the money-collecting efforts on their behalf don't reach expectations, lest they appear to be illegally fraternizing with their unaffiliated helpers. However, they do continue to get the good press of people raising extensive sums in their name, and direct mailing firms continue to stay in business.

Across the board, Republican candidates who tend to rely on high-risk direct mailing campaigns early on in their runs tend to be minorities or tea party-affiliated -- or both. And the people most likely to respond to direct-mail appeals are retired out-of-staters. The formula seems to apply to the National Draft Ben Carson Committee, which is pulling many of its donations from retired people across the country for a tea-party backed black Republican.

Eberle admits that direct mailing doesn't work for candidates who don't have national appeal. "The truth of the matter," he says, "is that you don't raise a lot of money with direct mail unless you are very popular."

His website has the same disclaimer. On a page titled, "5 Things Wrong, 5 Things Right With Direct Mail Fund Raising,' his firm offers warnings about the high cost and effort required for a successful direct mail campaign.

Base Connect has a similar caveat on their website: “FACT: Direct mail fundraising is not the fastest way to raise money, or the least expensive. But over the long run, when certain conditions are met, direct mail has repeatedly proven to be the most effective and reliable vehicle for raising money.” They also blame “the left and establishment RINOs” for “using tools like the blogosphere to smear Base Connect and our conservative primary challengers with innuendos and outright lies about how we raise money and where it goes.”

Eberle thinks that Ben Carson passes the popularity test, calling him Reaganesque and saying that his 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech was like Reagan's "Time for Choosing" speech in 1964. "I don't work for anybody that I don't support," Eberle says.

Correction: This article previously said that Vernon Robinson was the treasurer of the National Draft Ben Carson Committee. He is in fact the campaign director.